'If it ain't cooked and you can't peel it, don't eat it' is a mantra for many travelers determined to keep stomach bugs at bay. It's one I just can't subscribe to here in Southeast Asia, where most of the time temperatures hover around scorching and rolling carts packed with peeled fresh fruit beckon from many a corner.
Last Saturday we found ourselves in front of this Jakarta vendor ordering up some rujak, a fruit and vegetable salad that assumes a number of forms in Indonesia, Malaysia (where it's called rojak), and Singapore.
We love the simplicity of this Javanese rujak: watermelon, jicama, buah kedondong (a small oval, green-skinned fruit with a spiky pit that's intensely sour, also known as ambarella), ripe papaya, and rose apple sliced onto a plate, sprinkled - if you wish (we didn't) - with a sourish powder,
and accompanied by a small mound of chopped fresh chilies mixed with white sugar and salt and a dab of sticky sauce consisting of little more than gula merah (palm sugar) pounded in a mortar with chilies. Of course we took an immediate shine to the gula concoction; its slight smokiness and heat married seamlessly with the light, juicy, sweet-and-sour fruit.
Perhaps even better - certainly more intriguing - was the rujak tumbuk ('pounded' rujak, above) that we sampled the day before, prepared by a vendor from Jogjakarta who carries his business in two wooden boxes suspended from either end of a shouler pole.
'That is very, very old,' said an observer, his voice heavy with awe, as he pointed to the worn - but lovely, with its orange and green paint job - mortar in which our order of rujak would be tumbuk'd.
Into the mortar went the base: salt, crumbled trassi (dried shrimp paste), and chilies. Tumbuk, tumbuk, tumbuk. Then the fruit and vegetables: kedondong and jicama, green mango, rose apple, and lobi-lobi, a red cherry-lookalike that's crunchy, juicy, and sweet-sour (it's also preserved and served, with ice and sugar syrup, as a drink).
After pounding the ingredients almost to a pulp the vendor pulled out a chunk of palm sugar and shaved a piece into the mortar. More tumbuk, tumbuk, tumbuk, and then he spooned the mash into a plastic tray.
All that pounding had released the juices of the fruit and vegetables to create a fair amount of 'sauce' that was salty, sweet, spicy, and fragrant with the slightly heady funk of shrimp paste, and had a little bit of 'body' courtesy of the starch from the sweet potato. It made for a fantastically refreshing few mouthfuls.
A few years ago in Padang we savored a rujak made with a similar mixture of fruit and vegetables but served with a fiery peanut sauce.
We can't wait to return to Indonesia and see what else the islands do with fruit salad.